There isn’t a more mysterious, more hotly debated, or more baffling activity of the human brain. For as long as we have been sleeping, we have been dreaming. For just as long, we have been theorizing and experimenting and wondering just how and why our brains take us on those strange nighttime journeys.
Some say they are a reflection of the unconscious—famously, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung built immense psychological theories around that idea. The odd symbolism we encounter when dreaming can sometimes feel like it has roots in our everyday life.
“The dream is a sort of substitution for those emotional and intellectual trains of thought”
But what do we know for sure about dreaming? In recent years, and especially since the advancement of modern neurological monitoring techniques, scientists know more than ever about what is really going on in our heads when we enter a dream state.
What exactly are dreams?
We all know what it feels like to have one. There is the feeling of awakeness, that you are moving around in the world interacting as if you weren’t in bed asleep. Often there are little bits of strangeness to the scenarios we encounter. Symbolism, unreality, and emotional response are all common elements of imagination.
Early interpretations of their meaning were rooted in the idea that during sleep, humans were able to bridge some gap between two worlds. That idea later morphed into the Freudian concept of dreams being a portal into the unconscious mind. In both cases, dreams were seen as a way to experience some revelatory journey of meaning for the dreamer–a play of sorts designed to discern deeper meaning in our lives.
Today, scientists view them as more of an intentional act of our physical body than a passive experience for our mind. Modern technology, especially the EEG machine and discovery of sleep cycles, has allowed us to peer into the dreaming brain to discover a tremendous amount of neurological activity taking place.
What happens when we dream?
In many ways, your nighttime brain activity is simply one more piece of the complicated process of recovery which our brains undergo every night when we sleep. As we move through the sleep cycle and our brain moves from one task to another, we actually experience different types of fantasies, suggesting that our imagined experiences are linked directly to our brain activity.
During non-REM sleep, studies have shown that people do have dreams, though they are often more like hazy memories than crazy fantasies. These dreams are also much more difficult to remember, even if one is woken up right in the middle of it.
During this phase of sleep, brain activity in the hippocampus is focused on memory consolidation, or the process of taking processed experiences from the day and turning them into long-term memories. It may be the case that non-REM dreams are somehow a consequence of that function.
Scientists have linked the most vivid, bizarre and memorable types of dreams to REM (rapid eye movement) phase of the sleep cycle. This is likely related to the fact that REM sleep brings the highest levels of brain activity compared to any other phase. Scientists believe it is during this part of our sleep cycle that information from the day is processed so that it can later be transferred to long term memory during non-REM sleep.
Interestingly, this phase of the sleep cycle is also characterized by several physical changes, including most notably the back and forth pacing of the eyes, mixed with the relaxation of muscles elsewhere in the body. It has been theorized that this kind of intentional paralysis is intended to prevent our bodies from physically acting out our dreams.
Why do we dream?
Even though scientists have come a long way in breaking down the neurological characteristics of how we dream, the truth is that we are still not exactly sure why we dream.
Many believe, as discussed above, that dreaming is simply a by-product of the information organizing and storage processes that parts of the brain engage in as we sleep. Under this logic, dreams are a kind of abstract lens through which to view the content our brain is trying to codify and store for future use.
Another school of thought, called “threat simulation theory,” holds that our ability to dream evolved over time as a way to help us protect ourselves from threats in our environment. Scientists in this camp believe that dreams are an exercise of sorts, a kind of “dry-run” our minds can engage with and can practice reacting to threatening situations and themes.
Some sleep researchers still believe in dreams as manifestations of the Freudian subconscious and think that dreams provide our minds the ability to grapple with complex or troubling emotional concepts in an abstracted way.
All of these theories illustrate the lack of consensus in the community about dreaming’s value to the individual. But the good news is that research continues at a steady pace in this field. Much of that research will likely be published in the scientific journal dedicated entirely to the subject, aptly named Dreaming.
Can sleep be productive?
Absolutely! Regardless of which theory you subscribe to, it is clear that all of them play a role in the idea that dreams have the ability to help us process complicated information. With that said, here are a few tricks to try and make the most out of your dreams:
- Maintain a healthy sleep cycle: Good sleep hygiene will help ensure that you are getting to dream in the first place. Getting plenty of exercise, avoiding screens before bed, and limiting your alcohol and drug consumption will increase the likelihood that you move between the sleep cycles naturally.
- Think about a problem you’d like to solve as you drift off: If you’ve ever been faced with a problem or difficult decision, you’ve likely been advised by someone, at some point, to “sleep on it.” There’s a reason this advice has endured. A good night’s sleep can be just what you need to come up with creative solutions to problems big or small. Try contemplating the situation at hand as you fall asleep and it’ll increase the chances that your brain will incorporate those concepts into your dreams. But if it is a problem that you’re meditating on, It’s important not to stress about it, as that may make it more difficult to fall asleep.
- Keep a dream journal close to your bed: It can be hard to remember your dreams if you don’t write them down as soon as you wake up. The more time you spend trying to remember dreams, the better you become at it.
- Try taking a nap: Short naps can be sneaky ways to hack our brain into lucid dreams. The secret to becoming a lucid dreamer lies in our tendency to fall into REM sleep quickly when napping— especially if we missed out on it the night before.